Monday, January 26, 2009

Former FFS Dean John Nissel, S.J.

Fr.John Nissel, S.J.
The founder and dean of Sophia University's Faculty of Foreign Languages, Fr. John Nissel, died on Sunday (1/25) early morning of a heart attack in Seibo Byoin, a hospital run by Sisters. He was 83 years old, and 65 years a Jesuit. A native of Baltimore, Fr. Nissel joined the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, and came to Japan as a missionary in 1950--at a time when, given the dire economic conditions, it was a challenge to work in Japan. After about three years, during which time he learned Japanese at the Jesuit Language School in Taura, he returned to Maryland to do theology at Woodstock. He was ordained a priest in 1956, and then spent a few years at Georgetown University to acquire the needed academic qualifications to teach at Sophia University, mainly in the field of English and linguistics.

Returning to Japan in 1959, Fr. Nissel plunged into an academic career that was to last until 2001. He was one of the founders of the Graduate School of Linguistics at Sophia University. An English learning series he authored with several others was a best-seller among the Japanese learners of English. He has a large number of former students who are currently English educators, including several at Sophia University itself.

Nissel's Ordination Card
After retiring from Sophia in 1992, Fr. Nissel went to work as an educator and administrator at Kagoshima Junshin Junior College. His work there lasted until 2001, when he proceeded to Kobe Rokko Jesuit Church to take up the career of a parish priest. His stint in the parish lasted only a year, as he moved to S. J. House, near the Sophia University premises in 2002. At S. J. House, he continued to teach individuals and small groups both English and religion. In 2008 November, he moved to Loyola House, the facility for Jesuit Seniors, as his memory was fading and his walking became unsteady. He seems to have been in good spirits until two or three before his death, but when he was moved to the hospital on Saturday (1/24), he was extremely weak.

Fr. Nissel was an efficient administrator, as the many positions he held--Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Chair of the Department of English Studies, Head of the Graduate School of Linguistics, etc.--testify, and an excellent communicator. Although he seemed uncomfortable in using Japanese, he was sufficiently competent, but whatever weakness he might have had in his Japanese language skills, he made up for it by his extraordinary social skills. Moreover, in Japan, monolingual English speakers are highly prized, especially if they are English teachers, and because he spoke English most of the time, the Japanese enthusiastically flocked to him. He had several groups of admirers and friends who frequently visited him and invited him to talk to them. One important reason for his popularity was his great sense of humor, which he used to loosen up even the most frightened Japanese. I attended the farewell lecture he gave on his retirement from Sophia, and the only thing I can remember now is that the audience was roaring with laughter as he filled his narrative with numerous jokes and puns.

Fr. Nissel was a very energetic and intellectually gifted man. Until quite late in his life, he used to go cycling and ice-skating to different parts of Japan, and was always very eager to challenge new musical instruments, computers, and other arts. If my recollection is right, he used to play the flute very well and used to practice it frequently with his close friend and colleague Josef Edelman, S.J. In the 1980s, he was at Georgetown University trying to study Sociolinguistics in order to teach it at Sophia. He was always captivated by computers and programming, having tried his had at programming in BASIC and PASCAL. He explored several Japanese computers--in the good old days when the Japanese PCs were 100% incompatible with PCs elsewhere in the world--and then shifted to the MS-DOS and Windows PCs, and finally settled down with a Mac. He was always curious to learn new techniques and do something creative. He was invaluable during his last years, as he patiently helped several young Japanese to improve their English skills. No doubt, many will miss him. R.I.P.

You are welcome to add your comments about Fr. Nissel in the "Comments" section. (Click the "Comments" button below this entry, type, and post!)

Wake: 1/27 (Tu) 19:00 at the main chapel of St. Ignatius Church
Funeral Mass: 1/28 (W) 13:30 at the main chapel of St. Ignatius Church
See here for directions

≪通夜≫ 1月27日(火) 19時より  聖イグナチオ教会
≪葬儀ミサならびに告別式≫ 1月28日(水) 13時30分より  聖イグナチオ教会

Fr. John Nissel, S.J.


Arena said...

I've known Fr. Nissel for many many years, even before he left Sophia to begin the program he did in Southern Japan (on a small island, I believe). He is one of the kindest, thoughtful, and yes, wise, persons I will probably ever know...not to mention funny too!

Louis A. Arena PhD
Professor Emeritus
Linguistics and Cognitive Science Department
University of Delaware

little bird said...

Thank you for posting this. I am one of his many "admirers." He was a wonderful teacher. He taught us English skills (especially paragraph writing, about which we were not all that thrilled, but he emphasized very much) and computer skills (saving files, formatting texts in DOS!). Yes, he also had an excellent sense of humor, which someone described as both sophisticated and warm. How many times was I comforted by his funny and heart-warming jokes.... He is very much missed. Thank you, Father!

Little Bird